By Chidi Nkwopara, OWERRI
The thunderous ovation that spontaneously came from the Federal Prison, Owerri, on December 10, 2018, could ordinarily, have been mistaken for an impending uprising by the inmates of the establishment.
The noise was so loud that it instantly attracted the attention of some personnel of the State Police Headquarters, their closest neighbours. The policemen were seen peeping through their office windows in the storey building, close to the solid prison perimeter fence, to ascertain what jolted the serenity of the prison.
Inside the prison yard however, the Imo State Chief Judge, CJ, Hon. Justice Paschal Nnadi was busy looking into the pathetic cases of some of the inmates and ordering their immediate release from detention. The visit coincided with the World Human Rights Day.
The first to regain his freedom was Mr. Eric Iwu. Reviewing his case, Justice Nnadi said that from the documentary evidence before him, “the accused was 27 years old when he was remanded in prison custody in 2014, by the Magistrate Court, Ihiagwa, for an alleged offence that carried a penalty of just two years, if convicted.”
Continuing, Nnadi said that apart from spending more years than he would have served in prison custody if convicted, the accused was not taken to court for trial and there was nothing to show that he would be taken to court in future.
“Dumping the accused person in prison without taking him to court for trial, obviously runs counter to his fundamental right to freedom. I am minded of the fact that the Attorney-General has filed a nolle prosequi in the matter. The accused is hereby discharged,” Nnadi said.
Iwu’s face instantly brightened. A broad smile took over, even as he wondered if what he was hearing was a moonlight tale
Iwu raised his two hands in supplication to God and as soon as the Court Clerk re-echoed the verdict of the Chief Judge, the young man speedily raced out of the hall towards the exit door!
Speaking to South-East Voice, SEV, Iwu simply thanked God for setting him free, adding that “a lot of people in detention are innocent, but what can they do, when a competent court ordered their remand?”
The scenario was different when the CJ called up the names of two people said to be suffering from terminal sickness, Onyebuchi Ejimnkonye and Onyebuchi Eke Joseph. The silence that followed the announcement of their names, was palpable as the prison officials told Justice Nnadi that the two awaiting trial citizens had died in custody!
The CJ ordered the Controller of Prison, CP, to properly notify the court about the development.
Armed with that information, Justice Nnadi then concentrated on the list of “inmates suffering from terminal sickness requiring urgent medical attention or likely to terminate in death.”
Apart from having spent varying years in detention, those that made this list were also said to be suffering from diseases that ranged from tuberculosis, psychosis, general debility, severe anaemia, epilepsy, hypertension, hemiplegia, scabies, HIV/AIDS, lipoma of the buttocks, scrotal hernia, diabetes, bronchitis and pulmonary tuberculosis.
Although the names of the diseases enumerated by the prison authorities were very frightening, beholding the fragile frames of the patients, was anything but good. No fewer than 15 inmates, from this group, were either discharged on the spot or ordered to be brought before the relevant courts the next day, from where they would be set free.
The jail delivery continued the next day in the same Owerri prison yard. As usual, the Deputy Controller of Prisons, DCP, Mr. Seye O. Oduntan, prepared a long list of inmates his office expected the Chief Judge to review their matters.
The list included 15 inmates remanded for simple offences or misdemeanor, four under-aged convicts, 49 inmates that have not been taken to court for five years and above, 17 aged inmates, four inmates that have spent longer period in prison than they would have spent if tried or convicted and 13 under-aged awaiting trial persons.
Tackling the matters before him, Justice Nnadi discharged Odinaka Ololo, Ikechukwu Erondu and Geoffrey Renold, who had spent more years than they would have stayed in prison if tried and convicted. The matters attracted additional attention when the Deputy Director of Public Prosecution, Mr. M. C. Ijezie, filed a nolle prosequi signed by the State Attorney- General, Mr. Milletus Nlemadim.
Other beneficiaries came from the list of those that have not been to court for five years and above.
Mr. Marshall Orji was 17 years old when he was remanded in prison on April 14, 2008, and was thereafter, not taken to court again for trial.
In his ruling, the CJ said: “There is nothing on the remand warrant to show that he has been charged to any court of competent jurisdiction. There is also no prospect of his being taken to court in the foreseeable future. The court has also taken note of the nolle prosequi filed by the Attorney- General.
“It will, therefore, not be reasonable to continue to keep the accused in custody. You are therefore discharged and should be released from prison custody forthwith,” Justice Nnadi said.
Although the ruling followed the same pattern for all those released from prison, the CJ also had a word of caution for all of them.
“You must learn to stay away from trouble. If you find your way back to the prison yard, you may not find it easy to get out again. You have seen how long it took to get your freedom. When you get back to the society, make sure you turn a new leaf and detach yourselves from the bad eggs in the society,” Nnadi said.
South-East Voice recalls that the Federal Prisons, Owerri, which was originally constructed to accommodate 548 inmates, was, as at the date of the jail delivery session, holding 2,314 persons.
Similarly, the figures released by the Records Department of the establishment showed that 2,017 males and 72 females are awaiting trial, while 223 males and two females have been tried and convicted.
In his vote of thanks, the DCP expressed joy that the exercise was taking place, not quite two months since he assumed office in Owerri.
He appealed to the CJ to make the jail delivery sessions more regular, as “there are lots of pitiable cases to handle.”